150 YEAR AGO TODAY the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were once again glaring at each other from behind breastworks on opposite sides of a sluggish meandering stream called Totopotomoy Creek. After withdrawing all his troops to the north side of the North Anna River, Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant again tried to turn Gen. Lee’s right (eastern) flank. The Union army crossed the Pamunkey River a mile or two upstream of where the Mechanicsville Turnpike (US 360) crosses the river today. (Click here to view a Wikipedia map.)
While the Federals marched by longer routes, Lee’s army constructed a formidable line of breastworks along the south side of the Totopotomoy. The four corps of Meade’s Army of the Potomac approached the creek and dug in along the north side—from west to east Wright (6th), Hancock (2nd), Burnside (9th), Warren (5th).
The photo at left shows the commanding officers of the Second Corps. At the left is Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow, First Division. His wife Arabella was serving as an army nurse and would die that summer of typhus. Seated is the commander of the Second Corps, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who was severely wounded eleven months earlier at Gettysburg. Standing behind Hancock is Maj. Gen. David Birney, Third Division. He was the son of an ardent abolitionist from Kentucky. Birney would contract malaria during the siege of Petersburg and die October 18, 1864. At the right is Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, Second Division, who would eventually rise to command a corps. The photo was probably taken during early June 1864 near Cold Harbor.
In the grand scheme of things the fighting at Totopotomoy Creek, and a few miles east at Bethesda Church, was minor. Only Barlow’s Division would fight their way across the creek, but they found the position under the Confederate works too perilous and returned to the north side of the creek. Our friends in the Fourteenth Connecticut were involved only in occasional skirmishing and sharpshooting. (Click to view a map from The Civil War Trust.)
The Library of Congress is a great resource for Civil War photos (like the one above) and maps. The link below will open a map of the Totopotomoy line of earthworks. You can pan and zoom the map to examine it in detail. Note the misspelling in the title, a common occurrence with older maps. More importantly, note the extent of the lines from east to west, and then south (in the lower right corner), where the entrenchments would be continued o what would become the bloody battlefield of Cold Harbor, or as the cartographer spelled it “Cool Arbor.” (Click to view the map from The Library of Congress.)